Expert Comment: The Iron LadyWednesday 25 April 2012
Bill Jones, Adjunct Professor of Politics at Liverpool Hope University
It's hard for dyed-in-the-wool Thatcher haters like me to offer an objective view of Phyllida Lloyd's Abi Morgan scripted film. The eighties was a harsh decade, full of class conflict and loathing which I felt keenly; like so many of those of us left-of-centre folk, I have tended to blame Thatcher for it. The Iron Lady did not remove that belief but it did put my feelings towards her in a wider and more sympathetic context.
Much criticism has been directed at the depiction of her as an old lady with dementia, talking to an imaginary Denis and so forth, but I thought this perfectly justifiable as it put the focus on Margaret Thatcher as a vulnerable human being, like the rest of us, and an apt, Ozymandian reminder that pride is a very temporary satisfaction. The film covers her life in a series of flashbacks, from helping Alderman Roberts in his Grantham grocery shop to her ramming through the Poll Tax in the teeth of opposition from her own party.
We saw how her father insisted life was a struggle in which one had to labour hard to make a difference and in which one had an obligation to help other people. Inevitably, his concept of 'help' cleaved to the Conservative belief that that the best help is self-help rather than a recognition that many lack such resources.
Margaret Thatcher had to fight the appalling, derisive sexism so rife in the party she went on to lead and I think this helped compound her conviction that life is a struggle you have to fight with all your might. More than that, she was also one of those born controversialists who love to argue and to wipe the floor with opponents, their feelings notwithstanding. We saw her treat Geoffrey Howe with icy and humiliating contempt in Cabinet (one wonders how he reacted to seeing such galling scenes brought back to life). But oh boy, did he wreak a sweet revenge - an event the film rather downplayed I thought.
We also saw that she was essentially someone who regularly eschewed feminine persuasion and charm for the alpha-male methods of winning: aggression, humiliation, no remorse. She 'joined' the male world of her father, preferring her feckless, uncaring son to her daughter Carol and only appointing one woman to her Cabinet in all her time in Downing St. She also preferred the company of men, basking in their flattery, making favourites out of the better looking colleagues.
The film has been criticised for being narrowly biographical and neglecting the political context. I disagree. The film pays substantial attention to the big issues - the miners' strike, widespread social conflict, the Falklands - and surely a film-maker has a right to focus on the central character of the time. In a male dominated world of politics, she disproved the notion that our political system is so bureaucratic and averse to change that achieving it is impossible. I'd say such an achievement justifies two hours of sensitive interpretation of this remarkable life.
The film left me thinking that it was her greatest triumph, the Falklands War which ultimately led to her downfall. She was so filled with hubris after this spectacular victory that she began to believe both in her own infallibility and the terminal fallacies of her opponents and detractors. Like Blair after Kosovo and Sierra Leone, she acquired the idea that the same trick could be played indefinitely and for even higher stakes. So she became imperious, colonised the royal 'we' for herself and managed to convince, correctly, all those acolytes she had elevated on high that she was now beyond her sell-by date.
The film rightly allows Denis to share the focus; like every one of us, Margaret Thatcher needed someone's unconditional love and support and Denis, despite his head-banging right wing views, provided this in abundance. Jim Broadbent, excellent old trouper that he is, managed to recapture much of Denis's charm but not his voice, which he offered up with a touch of cockney I never detected.
Meryl Streep was almost as majestic in her role as Maggie was within the Conservative Party- she must surely win the best actress Oscar for it. But her faultless impression of the central character of the drama set the bar too high for others who aimed to evoke supporting roles like those of Heath, Howe and Heseltine. Yet this is a magnificent film which brings to life a politician who dominated a decade many of her opponents would still prefer to forget.